had a middleweight body, a welterweight chin and a flyweight psyche. It was not
a complete package, even for the boxing doldrums bracketed by Rocky Marciano
and Muhammad Ali. Consequently, over the course of a 20-year career as a
heavyweight boxer, he was obliged to suffer devastating and humiliating defeats
in the pursuit of only rare and paltry triumphs. And yet he became an unwitting
icon all the same, remembered for a humanity that never seemed appropriate to
his trade. To this day, to think of Patterson is to think of someone who was
always frightened, easily shamed and mostly overmatched and who would still
enter the ring, get back up and always return.
died last week of prostate cancer at the age of 71 (he also suffered from
Alzheimer's the last eight years), was hardly a great champion, even by his own
admission. But at least he was champion early (at 21, four years removed from
his 1952 gold medal in Helsinki, he knocked out an aging Archie Moore) and
twice (he avenged a savage beating by Ingemar Johansson to regain the
championship a year later, in 1960). Mostly, of course, he was an ex-champion,
losing his title again, and for good, to Sonny Liston in 1962.
This is not the
preferred office of heavyweight fighters, but nobody put it to more instructive
use than Patterson. He was far too sensitive to enjoy the destruction of his
opponent, too vulnerable to withstand the mortification of defeat and too
introspective to ignore the brutal requirements of his sport. And so he became
an ideal proxy for the rest of us. Patterson was our doomed road traveler,
forced again and again into the wilderness of disgrace, occasionally returning
to report his findings.
Not that he
couldn't fight. He had, according to Red Smith, "faster paws than a subway
pickpocket," and his lunging left hook was top of the line. And he knew the
game (he trained several fighters in his retirement--including his adopted son,
Tracy, a bantamweight champ--and later served as chairman of the New York State
Athletic Commission). But he was always undersized (he rarely weighed more than
180 pounds) and certainly of a baffling temperament. It was this last trait
that was most problematic, and interesting.
Patterson was one
of 11 children, brought up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. He
was so shy and quiet, and so affronted by turmoil, that his default reflex was
to disappear. He spent days in darkened movie theaters, riding aimlessly on the
subway, or holing up in a tool shed. "I'd spread papers on the floor, and
I'd go to sleep and find peace," Patterson later told David Remnick, for
his book on Ali.
He was an unlikely
convert to boxing. But then Cus D'Amato, the paranoid and psychoanalyzing
proprietor of the Gramercy Gym, was an unlikely trainer. With D'Amato preaching
his principles of fear, and the management thereof (as he would later do with
Mike Tyson), Patterson became an accomplished contender, despite his size.
Still, D'Amato was often puzzled. "He just doesn't have the zest for
viciousness," he complained.
Much has been made
of Patterson's reaction to defeat. Even his anticipation of it. When Johansson
delivered his "toonder and lightning," dropping Patterson seven times,
he was plunged into a yearlong depression, the loneliness of losing almost too
much. And, for the Liston fight (which President Kennedy more or less ordered
him to win), Patterson packed a bag of disguises, just in case. When Liston
flattened him in less than a round, Patterson availed himself of the fake beard
and dark glasses, escaped Chicago's Comiskey Park and eventually flew to
Madrid, where he affected a limp. As he explained to writer Gay Talese, "I
am a coward."
Less well known
was his reluctant violence, far more fatal to a boxer than the reconciliation
of defeat. In the early going, Patterson met a journeyman named Chester
Mieszala and knocked his mouthpiece out. Patterson bent to the canvas to help
Mieszala retrieve it. Even in his rematch with Johansson, when the Swede
deserved the full fury of retribution, Patterson was unable to muster any
satisfaction. With Johansson quivering on the canvas after being knocked out in
the fifth, Patterson knelt down to cradle his head and to kiss him on the
Patterson knew too
much of defeat, or else experienced its loneliness too profoundly, to enjoy
very much of victory, certainly of revenge. Years later, when it was Liston's
turn to sacrifice his dignity at the altar of entertainment, Ali having
destroyed him for good in their rematch, Patterson visited him at his hotel, an
empty room that spooked Patterson as much as the knockout. He told Liston
things would get better. Liston looked at him blankly for the longest time,
until he recognized a fellow traveler, somebody who'd returned from disgrace
but was miraculously still human. "Thanks," Liston finally said, just
as Patterson was leaving the room, empty again.
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